Friday, October 11, 2019


Gerard J.P. O'Daly, Plotinus. Ennead I.1: What is the Living Thing? What is Man? The 'Enneads' of Plotinus with Philosophical Commentaries. Las Vegas: Parmenides Publishing, 2017. Pp. 215. ISBN 9781930972988. $42.00 (pb).

Reviewed by E.J. Hutchinson, Hillsdale College (

Version at BMCR home site

In 1486, Pico della Mirandola said of Plotinus' works that in them "there is no one thing in particular for you to wonder at, for he offers himself to our wonder in every part; and while he speaks in a divine manner about divine things, and of human things in a manner far above man, with a learned indirectness of discourse, the sweating Platonists scarcely understand."1 Half a millennium on, little has changed. And if it is the case that the Enneads in general present problems of "learned indirectness" (and it is), it is superlatively so in the case of Enneads I.1. Deceptively placed by Porphyry at the beginning of Plotinus' works, the reader would assume that it is an introduction to his thought as a whole—and yet it is the penultimate treatise Plotinus wrote before his death and one of his most obscure. Nevertheless, although the treatise is both late and difficult, there is an important sense in which it remains a good introduction to Plotinus' thought.

For it deals with the central question of all Greek philosophy, inspired as it is by the Γνῶθι σαυτόν of the Delphic Apollo: "What is the living thing? What is man?" For Plotinus, as for Kant much later, this was the principal philosophical problem.2 After all, a large part of what we are doing when we philosophize is trying to figure out who (or, more precisely, what) the "we" is that is doing the philosophizing. And that is the subject of I.1, a treatise whose questions outnumber its answers—allusive, suggestive, sketching out and hinting at possible avenues of approach treated in greater detail in the other treatises. The question, then, is of supreme importance; Plotinus' treatment, enigmatic.

Enter Gerard O'Daly, whose translation of Enneads I.1 with introduction and commentary is the most recent in the series of philosophical commentaries on Plotinus under the general editorship of John Dillon and Andrew Smith. O'Daly is perfectly positioned for this work, as he has spent some five decades reading and thinking about Plotinus, dating all the way back to his first book,3 which was itself the published version of his 1968 Berne dissertation.

After a series introduction by Dillon and Smith, O'Daly gives the necessary prolegomena (17-29). His introduction is concise and lucid, giving the reader an account of how I.1 is situated among the rest of the Enneads, the way in which the treatise functions in Porphyry's arrangement as a protreptic gloss on the Delphic maxim, and a summary and brief exposition of its main arguments and themes, as well as a word on O'Daly's own translation practice. After a handful of remarks on the Greek text (31-2), O'Daly provides a useful table of the order of the Enneads in both Porphyry's system and their chronological order of composition. Next is a synopsis of the treatise (33-45) and the translation itself (47-64). It may seem curious that the synopsis is two-thirds the length of the treatise as a whole; but it is in fact perfectly reasonable given the abstruseness of the text.

O'Daly's translation is clear, consistent in its rendering of important terminology, and readable. A number of other serviceable English versions of this treatise exist—for example, those by A.H. Armstrong, Kevin Corrigan, and Lloyd Gerson et al.—4 but there are obvious advantages for O'Daly in providing his own, not least because his commentary is keyed to the line-divisions in his own version. In a review of Gerson et al., the most recent of the translations just listed, Sara Magrin comments that "the team's translation is less literal than Armstrong's"; O'Daly's is the opposite. He hews extremely closely to the Greek text, though he fills out the meaning in the many instances in which Plotinus' elliptical style would be intolerable in English. In this way, O'Daly conveys something of Plotinus' terseness in a way that Gerson et al. do not.

For purposes of illustration, compare the opening of the treatise in the three latest versions in English.5 First, Corrigan:

"Pleasures and pains, fears and assurances, desires and aversions, and suffering—to what subject do they belong? For they either belong to the soul or to soul using body or to some third thing made up from both. And this can also be taken in two ways, to mean either the mixture or another different thing resulting from the mixture."

Next, Gerson et al.:

"Pleasures and pains, feelings of fear and boldness, appetites and aversions and feelings of distress—to what do these belong? In fact, they belong either to the soul or to a soul using a body or to some third thing that arises from a combination of these. And this can be understood in two ways: either as a mixture or as something different that arises from the mixture."

Finally, O'Daly:

"Pleasures and pains, fears and confidence, desires and aversions, and distress—what might they belong to? For they are either the soul's, or the soul's using a body, or a third thing's consisting of both. And this last again in two ways: for it is either the mixture, or another different thing resulting from the mixture."

In rendering 43 words of Plotinian Greek, Corrigan uses 60 English words and Gerson et al. 67, whereas O'Daly uses only 55. 6 The translation, in sum, serves the volume's purpose and fittingly reflects Plotinus' Greek. Furthermore, as is evident from the above sample, O'Daly is broadly consistent with the two previous translators in his rendering of important technical terminology.

But the real heart of the book is the commentary (65-184). O'Daly excels at extracting Plotinus' meaning, and is particularly strong in drawing attention to parallel passages in the Enneads and to the creative ways in which Plotinus repurposes passages and themes of Aristotle (e.g., the De anima is an essential background text) and Plato (e.g., the Republic, the Timaeus, the Alcibiades I). Further, he weaves these elucidations together seamlessly with copious reference to and interaction with modern scholarship on Plotinus, so that the careful reader is left with a rounded portrait of the philosopher in both ancient and modern perspectives. Consider an example illustrative of his frequently copious citations from the comments on the passage cited above: (67):

Plotinus, following the frequent practice of earlier lists, has pairs of contrasting affections, followed by the more general 'distress.' H[enry-]S[chwyzer], followed by other commentators, refer to Plato, Republic 429c-d, 430a-b; Phaedo 83b; Timaeus 69d, and Aristotle, De Anima I.4, 408b2-3. Armstrong I, 94n1, refers to Plato, Laws 896e-897a. Marzolo 2006, 81 cites one o fthe fullest lists, Aristotle, Nicomachean Ethics II.5, 1105b21-23…, and adds as a possible souce for Plotinus here Alexander of Aphrodisias, On the Soul 12.7-19, where the passions are adduced as evidence that soul's activities cannot occur without bodily movement or change. Pradeau 2010, 202, concurs, but there seems to be no need to privilege the Alexander passage as a specific source here.

Such a tour de force of erudite display is a regular feature of the commentary. Indeed, it can almost drive one to distraction at times in following the main thread of the argument; but, on the other, hand, it gives the interested reader a surfeit of material for further study, as any good commentary should. I hasten to add, too, that very many notes privilege thorough exposition over references to sources, and that many of the longer notes (the number of which is high) do both. Overall, the commentary's balance between citation and analysis is good.

The commentary is followed by a helpful bibliography (185-99) and indices of ancient authors (201-5) and of names and subjects (207-15).

There is a handful of typographical errors: quotation marks facing the wrong way (e.g., 159, 180); missing commas (e.g., 162, 172); words repeated unnecessarily (e.g., 181, 183). Very few of these, however, have anything to do with the substance. (One rather unfortunate exception is the phrase "soul and body-trace" (25) where what must be meant is "body and soul-trace.")

Overall, O'Daly's book is to be highly recommended to all students of Plotinus and the Platonic tradition. E.R. Dodds noted in 1960 that "self-exploration is the heart of Plotinism, and it is in the analysis of the Self that he made his most original discoveries."7 Enneads I.1 is one of the most important works on this topic in the Plotinian corpus, and O'Daly has done a remarkable service in making it more accessible to English readers. It deserves a place on the shelf next to already existing treatments such as those of Corrigan and Paul Kalligas.8


1.   Pico della Mirandola, On the Dignity of Man, trans. Charles Glenn Wallis, Paul J.W. Miller, and Douglas Carmichael (Indianapolis: Hackett, 1998), 23.
2.   Immanuel Kant, Lectures on Logic, trans. and ed. J. Michael Young (Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press, 1992), 538; cf. the discussion in Ellis Sandoz, "Philosophical Anthropology and Dostoevsky's "Legend of the Grand Inquisitor," in Dostoevsky's Political Thought, ed. Richard Avramenko and Lee Trepanier (Lanham, MD: Lexington Books, 2013), 94; Martin Buber, "What Is Man?," in Between Man and Man, trans. Ronald Gregor-Smith (New York: Routledge, 2002), 165.
3.   Gerard J.P. O'Daly, Plotinus' Philosophy of the Self (New York: Barnes & Noble Books, 1973). Cf. also his Platonism Pagan and Christian: Studies in Plotinus and Augustine (Aldershot: Ashgate, 2001).
4.   Plotinus, Enneads, 7 vols., trans. A.H. Armstrong (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1966-1988; Kevin Corrigan, Reading Plotinus: A Personal Introduction to Neoplatonism (West Lafayette, IN: Purdue University Press, 2005); Plotinus, The Enneads, ed. Lloyd P. Gerson, trans. George Boys-Stones, John M. Dillon, Lloyd P. Gerson, R.A.H. King, Andrew Smith, and James Wilberding (Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press, 2018).
5.   Gerson et al. includes short notes by way of commentary; Corrigan, like O'Daly, includes a much more discursive treatment.
6.   It should be noted that Armstrong's translation is even more concise (54 words), though there are some terminological differences from the translations cited above.
7.   E.R. Dodds, "Tradition and Personal Achievement in the Philosophy of Plotinus," JRS 50 (1960) 1-7.
8.   Paul Kalligas, The Enneads of Plotinus: A Commentary, vol. 1, trans. Elizabeth Key Fowden and Nicolas Pilavachi (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2014). For Corrigan, see footnote 4 above.

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